Irredeemable, episode 4: Family
He was born April 29th, 1976. His parents named him James Dean Fuson.
James’ mom died when he was seven, and his dad left the picture after that. His maternal grandparents, Delores and Wallace Bach, raised him alongside his aunt, Penni, in southwest Detroit.
In the beginning, he called them Granny and Pee Wee. Then teenage self-consciousness got the better of him, and he switched to Grandma and Gramps.
“I was eight years older than him,” says his aunt Penni Bach Johnson. “And I remember I used to babysit him a lot. I used to change his diapers. He was like my little brother.”
Penni says James was very likeable, charismatic and smart.
“God, he’s so smart, just so smart,” she says. “Everybody had a special place in their heart for him, cause he didn’t have a mom and a dad. We were his family, so we would shower him with love.”
James and Penni got older. He sought her out for advice. Penni helped him learn to drive at the Woodmere Cemetery where his mom was buried. All along, though, James was getting more and more angry and rebellious. He stopped listening to his grandparents.
“They tried really hard to rein me in,” James says, “and kind of the older I got, the more and more I just did whatever I wanted. ... I think literally I just got out of control."
Records show James was kicked out of school in ninth grade. By age 17, he had run away from home and moved in with his girlfriend, Retta Huggins.
That same year he was charged with aggravated assault. But after violating his parole, he decided to move to North Carolina with Retta and their friend, Steve Hanson, to avoid going to jail.
James says, before they left for North Carolina, they went to his grandparents’ house to pick up his stuff.
“We had discussed even before then if they tried to stop us we weren’t going to let them,” James says.
James says he, Retta and Steve agreed if that meant killing them, they’d do it.
They went to the house in the early morning hours of January 24th, 1994. James’ key to the house didn’t work, so he broke through a window and went in with Retta and Steve. His grandparents confronted them.
“And they were yelling and screaming,” James says, “and I was yelling and screaming back, ‘F this. I’ll do what I want. I’m leaving. You’re never going to see me again.’ That type of stuff.”
The yelling turned physical. James says his grandmother hit him, and he hit her back. His grandmother fell down. Nearby, Retta and Steve were attacking his grandfather.
“It’s hard to remember a little bit of it,” James says, “but I know ... I just kept on hitting her. ... And she just had stopped moving, and I thought I had killed her right there.”
He stopped hitting her, thinking she was dead. But she wasn’t.
“She was breathing real heavy,” says James, “and I remember I hated that. I didn’t like to hear it. I went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife, and then I cut her throat. And I just left her there.”
His grandmother was dead. His grandfather was dead too. Retta had beaten his head with a teapot, and Steve had cut his throat.
James’ aunt Penni was 25 when it happened. She and her husband lived about 10 minutes away.
“I never would have thought he would have done something like that,” Penni says. “Like they loved him; he loved them. I never expected it.”
Penni went to the pre-trial, the trial, everything. She says she never talked to James after he killed her parents.
“He slipped someone a note to give to me after the sentencing, and I threw it away,” she says.
But she didn’t throw it away without reading it.
“It said that he loved me, and that he didn’t do this. And I’m like, ‘well who did it then? If you didn’t do it, then who did it? Cause I know you did it.’ I was just – I threw it away. ... But that’s the only contact we’ve had.”
The jury found James guilty of both his grandparents’ murders. And at 19, he was sentenced to life without parole. The sentence was mandatory under state law. Retta was also sentenced to die in prison. Steve got a shorter sentence and has already been paroled.
James can’t explain why he did it. Yes, he was angry. He was rebellious. He says he was self-centered – that he probably had psychological issues.
“Really, I think it started a long time before that with my parents,” James says.
His aunt, Penni, says when James was born, his dad, Rodney Morgan, was in prison for assault and robbery. When Rod got out of prison, he got back together with James’ mom, Pamela Fuson. Penni says Rod beat Pam, and that James’ mom was trying to save money to get away from Rod.
“And he told her that if she left him, he would kill the entire family, he would rape me and burn us,” says Penni. “He was just an evil man.”
Pam died from a heroin and cocaine overdose when James was seven. Rod disappeared after that and later went to prison for murder where he died. From then on, James lived at his grandparents’ house full-time in southwest Detroit.
“My mom and dad did everything they could to show him love, and that they cared about him and tried to change his life,” Penni says. “I just don’t understand why he did that. I just don’t. He took out anger on the people that loved him the most.”
Doing a life bid
Nothing really changed when James went to prison. Early on, he got in trouble for fighting. He got caught beating up another prisoner. He punched the guy in the head repeatedly. That landed him in solitary confinement for six months.
“A guy whose name I don’t know, he was in the cell next to me,” James recalls, “and he asked me, ‘what’s wrong with you kids today?’ I said, ‘oh I’m doing a life bid. I don’t give an F.’ And he said, ‘you don’t know when things can change. Maybe you should do your bit like you have an out-date, and maybe one day you will get your chance.”
That mindset stuck with James, but things really began to change after a friend pressured him into joining a theater class. James says he had so much fun, it snowballed from there. He took other classes, started writing poetry and playing guitar. Now, it has been 20 years since he last got a misconduct for violence in prison. He’s an academic tutor and trains leader dogs for the blind.
James quotes a bible verse to describe what’s happened to him … “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But he still struggles to come to terms with what he did to his grandparents nearly 24 years ago. He says he rarely talks about it.
“The shame and the guilt and all that, I think that’s my biggest roadblock to really putting it out there,” James says. “That I betrayed them in such a way, I feel horrible what must have went through their minds.”
A second chance
James is now 41. And the advice from the older prisoner – to do his bit like he has an out-date – may pay off.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to give juveniles who commit first-degree murder a mandatory sentence of life without parole. There needed to be more variability. In 2016, Michigan began resentencing juvenile lifers, including James. This was something Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette fought against. He said revisiting these cases would cause undue trauma to the family members of victims.
At resentencing, prisoners can still get life without parole. They can also get a minimum sentence of 25 years and anything in between.
The final decision is up to a judge or jury. But last year, prosecutors around the state were asked to make a recommendation in each case. In cases where the prosecutor recommends a shorter sentence, the juvenile lifer will most likely eventually be released. More than 40 juvenile lifers of the 367 statewide have already received parole dates.
Robert Moran, chief of the special prosecutions division at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, says input from victims’ family members influences the county’s decision.
“It’s part of the process. It’s a factor that we consider,” say Moran. “It’s not the only factor.”
He says the prosecutor also considers things like the circumstances of the crime, the lifers’ prison record and psychological reports.
The prosecutor’s job is to represent the people of Michigan, including the victims’ family members, but, Moran says, that doesn’t mean they always side with the family.
“I can tell you there are cases where they wanted life without parole, and we went the other way,” he says.
Moran says his office has tried to reach as many family members of victims as it can to tell them about the resentencing process.
“And to try to explain to them that what we told them years ago is no longer true, and that these individuals may have a possibility of getting a parole date,” says Moran.
James’ aunt, Penni Johnson, says she hasn’t heard from the prosecutor’s office yet. She learned about the resentencing process about a year ago on her own.
“I cried because it brought back memories,” Penni says, “and I pulled out old articles ... the autopsy report ... and confessions. Pretty much kind of tortured myself.”
James’ resentencing hearing has not been scheduled yet, but if his family is there when it happens, he wants them to know how sorry he is for what he did.
“And how ashamed I am of it,” James says. “Nothing I can do can ever change it – take it back.”
James says there is a part of him that’s afraid of his resentencing hearing.
“The obvious fear I have is that I walk away with a lot of time,” he says. “The real fear, I think, is finding out that people in my family don’t forgive me.”
He knows his family might not want him to be released.
“I think they’re justified in that feeling and that desire,” James says, “and I wouldn’t be ever mad at them for that.”
James’ cousin Rick Kimbrough does feel that way. Rick says James should never get out.
He was in his 20’s when his aunt and uncle were murdered. His mother was Delores’ sister.
“I wish [Michigan] had the death penalty,” says Rick. “I think he shouldn’t be living for what he did. That was two innocent people brutally murdered like that – I mean brutal.”
When I ask Penni if she thinks James should stay in prison for life or get a shorter sentence, she said she doesn’t know.
“I still love him,” says Penni, “but I’m afraid of him, because I don’t know what kind of person he is. Like what he has shown me, he is evil. I just hope that he is different, but I don’t know."
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has recommended James be resentenced to life without parole again. That could change. The office may revisit some of its cases and make a different recommendation, but it is unclear when that would happen and if James’ case would be considered.
The things they remember
James has a picture of his grandparents in his cell at Macomb. Sometimes he’ll take it out to look at it. Meanwhile, Penni watches old videos of parents. Her favorite is of a backyard barbeque. It was a small family gathering, and she says they were playing Aerosmith, and her dad was playing guitar.
“My cousin was dancing while he was flipping burgers, and my mom was dancing with me,” Penni says.
She says James wasn’t in that video.
“He was probably in his bedroom or something,” Penni says, “but I wish he was more a part of it.”
James remembers his grandmother crocheting, her Blue Buick and how she was always doing things for other people. He remembers his grandfather’s sense of humor and his antics.
He says he misses them – their presence and their love.
“No matter what I was doing, if I was acting out or having trouble in school, they would always be there for me and show up and support me.”
James realizes some people might think he doesn’t have a right to feel their loss.
“I’m human. I’m going to feel that,” he says. “I might be the instrument of my own bad feelings, but I feel them nonetheless. ... I loved them despite what had happened. ... Sometimes we do things that ... wreck our own lives.”
In prison, James says the instructors of his restorative justice class have asked him to present his story multiple times. He’s turned them down each time. He says he’s not ready to talk about it.
They’ve asked him again this year. And – although he hasn’t given them an answer yet – he says he is considering it.